The period around Christmas and the New Year can be one of the toughest times of the year if you're suffering or recovering from an eating disorder. At this time of culturally sanctioned gluttony, it may feel like food and drink are all around you, and there's no getting away from it.
Worse still, after a period of Christmas binging and overindulgence, come January we are bombarded with messages of "New Year, New You" from a media full of talk about dieting, exercise and weight loss. If your relationship with food, eating and body image is complicated, these mixed messages are understandably problematic and may make your eating disorder especially difficult to manage.
We asked four RSCPP therapists for their advice on how you can cope with your eating disorder throughout the festive period.
Most importantly, Registered Psychotherapist Sue Crofton says, "don't put extra pressure on yourself to 'eat properly' during this period. Christmas and New Year are difficult times for anyone with disordered eating."
Likewise, Chartered Psychologist Julie Scheiner says: "The best advice I can give you is to accept that you have an eating disorder. There is no point giving yourself a hard time, at this time of year or ever, about the fact that you are experiencing difficulties with your eating."
She adds: "Christmas is a time of excitement, warmth, fun; a time to relax and spend time with family and friends, when people can take time out of their daily routines in order to unwind. During this time of year, perhaps it is also important that you can give yourself a break from your eating disorder and try and let yourself off the hook of your 'eating disorder bully'."
If those around you are merrily eating and drinking without a care, you may feel especially isolated with your problem. If this is the case, Julie says: "Whilst those around you may not understand your perspective, it may be worthwhile thinking about sharing your feelings and concerns with your family. Remember that this is the time of year when people to tend to let go of their stresses and tend, instead, to focus on food. It is everywhere and there is no getting away from it."
Although you probably do feel surrounded by food, Julie points out that the heightened feelings of stress and anxiety you may be experiencing are totally normal. It's important to recognise this, and to find you own individual ways of being able to care for yourself, and to soothe the negative thoughts and emotions you may have around eating.
"Mindfulness is one of the most useful and effective tools that people affected by disordered eating can employ to deal with the challenging holiday period," says Registered Counsellor Styliani Stathi. "This involves becoming aware of your moment-to-moment experience, without judging it or trying to change it in any way, but by relating to it with an attitude of compassion and curiosity. The practice of mindfulness can be applied on all levels of the festive season," she explains.
"Being conscious of physical sensations will allow you to listen to your body's signals as to how much you really need to eat; mindfulness of your thinking process encourages you to externally observe any judgmental thoughts towards yourself and your body, without taking them as actual facts or getting caught up in their story; while awareness and acceptance of your emotions will support you in tuning in to your experience, instead of turning away from it, even when that becomes hard and unpleasant."
Employing these mindfulness techniques, Stella adds, "will also help you take action to soothe and comfort yourself in healthy and nurturing ways, instead of self-punishing or harmful ones."
Julie recommends using your five senses to provide soothing and nurturing self-care when you're struggling: "By being mindful of yourself and your body, you can learn to self-soothe and ultimately feel better," she says. Techniques such as going for a walk, listening to soothing music, sipping herbal tea, taking a bubble bath or going for a massage may help you soothe yourself during this difficult time.
When it comes to Christmas Day itself, Accredited Counsellor Maureen Cahill recommends using relaxation techniques to soothe yourself throughout the main meal: "With the Christmas Day feast, stay as relaxed as you can, eat slowly and listen to your body; you can stop when you feel full."
Similarly, Sue says: "Have one meal on your own [during this period], without the distraction of the radio, TV or reading at the same time. Think about what you want to eat: salty, sweet, spicy, plain, crunchy, smooth, and then focus on the sensation of that food in your mouth. This will give you a much clearer indication of what will satisfy you, and also re-establish your connection with food."
Finally, Julie says Christmas may be a time when you can begin to think about taking control and moving forward. "By eating, you are acknowledging that you have a life away from your eating disorder," she says. "Although your 'eating disorder bully' may feel otherwise, think about this time as a time to perhaps start taking control of your life and not letting your eating disorder get the better of you."
According to both Sue and Mo, using food and mood diaries may be a useful way for you to track the thoughts and emotions behind your over or under-eating. "At this time of year, doing some self-monitoring is crucial for anyone recovering from or suffering with an eating disorder," Mo says.
"Use a notebook to help you feel more in control, where you can track any anxious or negative thoughts and ask yourself helpful questions. If you are struggling with binge or secret eating behaviours, ask yourself if you are eating through hunger or emotional stress? Keeping a log of what's going on will help you feel better about managing it."
Sue adds: "See if you can extend the period of 'discomfort' that triggers the impulse to reach for food that your emotions may want but your stomach doesn't. Explore differentiating between 'humming' and 'beckoning' foods. 'Humming' foods are those that satisfy you physically. 'Beckoning' foods are those that tempt you by sight or smell."
While Christmas and New Year will never be an easy time to live with an eating disorder, practising these techniques, or even seeking support from a therapist, could help you make the best of the festive period. "As is often said in therapy, it all begins with awareness," Stella says. "The more conscious and committed you can remain to yourself and your self-care during the holidays, the easier it will become to navigate this often highly-charged time of year."